Interpreting “Heritage”

by Alan Reed

Interpreting “Heritage”
Alan Reed

Alan Reed

FAIA, LEED AP

President See Profile

I just read a fascinating paper entitled A Colonialist Celebration of National Heritage: Verbal, Visual, and Landscape Ideographs at Homestead National Monument of America by Joshua Ewalt. It was fascinating to me because it interpreted, among other things, meanings associated with the Heritage Center at the Homestead National Monument of America, which we designed for the National Park Service to commemorate the Homestead Act of 1862.

The premise of the paper—as I understand it—is that the use of the Ideograph (a word associated with a virtue frequently used in political discourse that uses an abstract concept to develop support for political positions) “Heritage” at the Homestead National Monument allows private citizens to embrace their heritage associated with the positive results of the Homestead Act without feeling guilt about the negative impact of the Act—the persecution of American Indian Nations. The author comes to this conclusion after “establishing the diachronic use of ‘heritage’ and analyzing its synchronic confrontations with other verbal-, visual-, and landscape-based ideographs at the monument…” Crystal clear, with a little help from Mr. Webster.

 

It truly was a thought-provoking read, but my interest was in Mr. Ewalt’s interpretation of the architecture of the Heritage Center itself. Mr. Ewalt interprets the form of the building as a metaphor for the struggles of the homesteaders in their quest to survive in the vast, barren landscape that confronted them as they staked their claim. That was, in fact, the genesis of our design for the building. However, the author also associates many other meanings to the architecture that were not anticipated in the original design, but are nonetheless appropriate to the Homestead story.

One of the concepts that we have always endorsed in our practice is that interpretive buildings (visitor centers, orientation centers, nature centers, etc.) can reinforce, and indeed help tell the stories of their site. This concept is embraced by what we call story-based design, which is in essence a contextual approach. However, it goes beyond the standard notions of context (site, built environment, materials and style) and examines the history and culture embodied in a particular site, as well as the subject of interpretation, as was the case with the Heritage Center. In doing so, we invite the user to derive meaning and develop personal connections to the subject matter. Ultimately, we believe that this approach is the key to developing timeless architecture. Mr. Ewalt’s essay substantiates our philosophy through his association of multiple meanings derived from the building form of the Heritage Center.

To the extent that others make personal connections with the Heritage Center—that are, likewise, appropriate to the story of the homesteaders—supports the idea that it will endure and achieve truly timeless status.

Alan Reed

Alan Reed

FAIA, LEED AP

President See Profile

Alan Reed is GWWO’s President and Design Principal. He is a regular speaker on topics related to interpretive center design, including contextual design, and in 2011 he was elevated to the AIA College of Fellows specifically in recognition of his work on interpretive center facilities nationwide.